In June, 1818, Scott published The Heart of Midlothian in four volumes to the delight of the general readership and critics alike. There were originally to be two stories in the second series of Tales of My Landlord, but the novel grew under Scott's hands into proportions he had not anticipated. The teller of the tale is supposedly Jedediah Cleishbotham, the old schoolmaster and parish clerk of Gandercleugh, the village which lies exactly between Edinburgh and Glasgow and therefore regards itself as Scotland's "navel." The story goes back to a period before that covered by Waverley (the 1745 Jacobite rising), namely the years following the Act in Union in 1707. The immediate historical background is the English Parliament's levying a tax on malt (beer, the Scottish national beverage) in 1725, which instantly stimulated smuggling or "fair trading" in spirits from Holland, France, and Spain. Wilson's hanging for robbing an exciseman sets in motion the plot of The Heart of Midlothian, since the mob whose depredations open the story is making an eleventh-hour attempt to rescue Wilson. The novel is based loosely on the heroic walk to London by Helen Walker of Irongray in Dumfriesshire, who, in attempting to enlist the support of the Duke of Argyle in obtaining a pardon for her sister on the charge of child-murder, served as the basis for Jeanie Deans. She is, unlike so many heroines of novels of the period, severe, active, and dominating. The climax, winning her sister's life from Queen Caroline, is a vindication of her four-square, practical philosophy and personal determination.
When Scott begins the story, we are in the midst of the Porteous Riot at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh. Finally, in Chapter 28 Scott supplies the date of the action: 1737. The commander of the Edinburgh city guard, Captain John Porteous, had ordered his men to fire on a mob at the hanging of Wilson, who was reprieved. Scott utilizes the historical background of the Tolbooth Riot by introducing Effie Deans into the prison while Porteous is dragged out of hiding place and hanged in the Grassmarket by a second group of citizens, led by "Robertson" (an alias for George Staunton in the novel, a reckless young nobleman who is involved with the smugglers and who has been Effie Deans' lover). The Reverend Reuben Butler, Jeanie Deans' sweetheart, is forced by the mob to offer spiritual consolation to Porteous at his execution. Despite Staunton's efforts, however, Effie refuses to leave her prison when offered the opportunity to escape, electing to face justice instead.
After the riot, the ensuing conversation reveals the discontent and sense of helplessness that grip the Scots because the seat of government is now London and not Edinburgh. Later, by emphasizing the compassion of the figures at Effie's trial, Scott attacks not the system of government but people such as Porteous who abused their authority. At her trial, because her sister Jeanie refuses to give false evidence which would have resulted in Effie's acquittal, Effie is sentenced to death for the murder of her own infant. Her father, "Douce Davie," is a simple, sincere adherent of Cameronian principles. Jeanie, very much her father's daughter (and not the orphan that Helen Walker was), feels she must follow her conscience by not lying to save Effie, but then determines to win her sister's freedom by walking to London. Jeanie is everything her sister is not: Effie is beautiful, the lover of a dashing nobleman in disguise, and mother of an illegitimate child. Everybody at the trial reacts objectively to justice: Jeanie refuses to lie in order to remain true to her principles; Effie admits that the Doomster has made a just decision in court. Jeanie Deans undertakes a practical "Pilgrim's Progress," meeting all the challenges of the arduous journey without flinching. Arrived in London, she appeals with simple forthrightness to the Duke and the Queen Caroline. Through the Duke's benevolence, Jeanie is able to marry her fiancé, the Presbyterian minister Reuben Butler; her father is retired to a farm on the Duke's estate; and Effie marries her lover, Staunton. The infant she was accused of murdering is, in fact, still alive, sold by Meg Murdockson to a vagrant woman in revenge for Staunton's having seduced her insane daughter, Madge Wildfire. Ironically, at the close of the novel, like Laius in Greek myth Staunton is slain by his own son on the highway.
The incidents on the road to London owe something to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). Although Jeanie's bare feet and tartan attract little attention in her native country, when she crosses the border she meets with rude gibes. Fortunately, she is befriended by her countrywoman, Mrs. Bickerton, the landlady of the Seven Stars inn at York. Thus, Scott plays the characters of the Scots off against those of the English, contrasting their cultural attitudes, their systems of justice, their dialects, and their urban settings. However, as Scot moves up the social scale and away from the common Scot his dialogue becomes less effective. The Duke of Argyle becomes too much the archetypal Love-wit, and god-like protector and intervener, and ideal master rather than a realistic Highland landlord and politician. The supporting comic characters of the foolish Laird of Dumbiedikes and the pedantic Bartoline Saddletree (aptly named for a harness-maker) are memorable.
Last modified 30 December 2001